In a sturdy three-story house two miles from Xavier’s campus, Mary Ellen Mitchell Eilerman and Elizabeth Coyle pass between the kitchen and dining room, performing the most mundane tasks—setting the table, sweeping the floor, loading the dishwasher. A pot of soup bubbles on the stove as a handful of guests stream in from work.
The two women are co-directors of Lydia’s House, a transitional housing program for homeless women and their children that also provides a community in the tradition of the Catholic Worker movement. Lydia’s House is their way of living their commitment to the Gospel. “If tomorrow all the housing needs in Cincinnati were met, we would still want to exist as a community that lives out the Gospel together,” Eilerman says.
Eilerman and a third partner, Meredith Owensby, met in college in Atlanta, where they volunteered in a community similar to Lydia’s House. Wanting to do the same in Cincinnati, Eilerman, who earned a master’s degree in theology at Xavier in 2009, started looking for property around 2011. Two years later, they found the classic foursquare-style house with wooden floors, a front porch and a small back yard. It was perfect. After extensive renovations, Lydia’s House opened in April last year. Coyle, a 2005 graduate with English and theology degrees, had moved around the country doing campus ministry but came back to join them when she heard about Lydia’s House from friends.
The house, named for a woman in Acts of the Apostles who opens her house to Paul and Silas, is more than just free housing. It holds up to four women and six children who stay for up to 18 months. Coyle and Owensby live there, too, while Eilerman and her family live nearby. Members also function as a community, sharing meals, chores and prayer. There are worship services and an emphasis on hospitality. And Xavier students come over from campus each week to help clean and cook.
There are also expectations: save a portion of each paycheck, and demonstrate a clear path toward stability. Coyle and Eilerman have been pleasantly surprised at times. One expectant mother asked them to accompany her to the hospital when it was time to give birth. Another who left on less-than-ideal terms later asked the women to serve as godmothers for her newborn. It’s gone so well that they’ve purchased another house nearby. Named for Jean Donovan, one of four American churchwomen murdered in El Salvador in 1980, the house opens its doors this spring.